United in Music and Tragedy: On Jeff Jackson’s "Destroy All Monsters: The Last Rock Novel"
Jeff Jackson | Destroy All Monsters: The Last Rock Novel | FSG Originals | October 16, 2018 | 359 Pages
As I scrolled through my Instagram feed past the fiftieth A Star is Born trailer, I asked myself how long it had been since I had actually seen a musical in theaters. Only two years, less time than I thought, when I took my then-girlfriend-now-wife to see La La Land a few weeks after we saw Moana. Since then I’ve probably seen Moana two more times, but I actually forgot that it was a musical. Music slips into the cracks of all media, so much that we need to describe movies as “musical” or not, even though nearly every single film out there has a score or a soundtrack. Some kiss it full on the lips, Baby Driver style, while others secretly hope that we forget that music exists, like I Am Legend. Then there’s musician biopics, which not only remind us of the forgotten tracks of beloved musicians, but of the downright idolization we have had concerning Elvis, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Ray Charles, Sid Vicious, Joan Jett, and now Freddie Mercury.
Just a few swipes down on my Instagram feed, another story waited from CNN. It was about the anniversary of the Las Vegas shooting, which had so rapidly followed the shootings at Pulse and the murder of singer Christina Grimmie. The presence of music in these three shootings was a weird common denominator in the midst of a phenomenon full of debatable patterns. In case anyone needed a reminder that shootings can occur at any time, music, a beloved widespread art form, had been tainted in the violence. Jeff Jackson’s Destroy All Monsters: The Last Rock Novel, released two weeks after the Las Vegas anniversary, manages to face terror and remain hopeful. This novel takes the shared love of music as well as the feelings of pain and meditates on survival in a world where violence occurs so frequently that it’s come to be expected.
Destroy All Monsters has two sides, literally, like a record, titled “My Dark Ages” and “Kill City” respectively. Side A takes up fifty more pages than printed upside down Side B. It also feels more like a complete novel. Right from the prologue, musicians start dying in attacks perpetrated by random individuals. Everyday fans spanning across race and gender show up to concerts and murder the performers. No one has regard for genre – even though this is a “rock novel” – bluegrass bands and dance-pop groups get shot alongside metalheads.
However, the violence doesn’t deter teenagers from heading to concerts or starting bands in their garages. A concert in a town called Arcadia draws punk rock babe Xenie to charismatic guitarist Shaun, much to the dismay of Shaun’s creative partner, Florian. Florian spends the night hanging out with friendless Eddie, a loner whom everyone pities. A year later, Xenie and Florian both have premonitions that someone will kill Shaun onstage. They’re right. Florian, with a different band, managed by Eddie, commits to playing a memorial concert for Shaun. Xenie wanders through madness and finds new hope in Eddie which leads her to crash Florian’s trainwreck of a concert. She initially plans to bring a gun and shoot the band, but instead unleashes her voice in a tribute solo. After the show, full of rage and shown up, Florian finds the gun she planned to use and kills himself. Xenie then helps Eddie fulfills Florian’s last wish by burying his ashes at his mother’s gravesite, even though she has to follow him through woods full of hunters and sing a song (something she hates) for Florian.
On the reverse side we get a much shorter story with a new perspective. It opens with a nationwide tour, following killers. These people come to the sites of their massacres as if called there, but they’re presented as human, not Terminators. Some of the killers stumble and get tackled shortly after they start shooting. One shows up too late and somebody else has committed his murders. Interludes between chapters show a planned murderer taking care of his mother just before he goes to his concert. Then, the story turns to a version of Side A, but with some of the genders flipped. Eddie becomes Edie. Florian becomes Florence. Xenie remains female but becomes a rising rock starlet, rather than a scared fan. Shaun remains an amateur musician, but feels content supporting Xenie. It’s Xenie who gets killed onstage with her band and Shaun who has no place to take his grief.
Xenie holds the novel together with the tenacity of a diehard fan. The emotions she experiences as a result of her love of music echo in every sentence of Jackson’s prose. Xenie becomes obsessed with the shootings, deletes her digital music collection as it poisons her and tries to hide Shaun’s guitar because she’s willing to give up music in order to avoid his death. The vibrant, youthfulness that amplifies her every feeling also makes her teeter on the edge of the bleakest darkness. Meanwhile, her antagonist, Florian, merely dreams about Shaun’s killing and nurses his jealousy toward Xenie. As a result, Shaun ignores Xenie and gets shot while performing, snatching the immortality Florian craves. Florian feels pain almost as hard as Xenie, but a broken childhood sets him on the course to reject love in all forms and eventually lash out. His side B version, Florence, deals with a similar lost friendship to Shaun, who doesn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with Xenie’s death. Florence drives Shaun toward misplaced violence, but both Shaun and Xenie find refuge in the supportive Eddie/Edie, the voices of reason and lone spots of empathy in an angry world.
The B-side also looks more closely at the killers by telling chapters, in second as well as third person, from their points of view. A different method of violence comes along with each venue. One character carries a bomb in a backpack, another uses a gun. The killers’ passions bounce off the violent tendencies that superfans Xenie and Florian harbor on side A. Destroy All Monsters presents the disturbing idea that violent people’s minds closely resemble those of their victims. All the survivors who have felt loss experience violence the same way that music connects all these characters. Most of these characters meet at concerts and they all play music. Xenie, who leaves the biggest impact upon her death also has the largest music collection, as though she collects emotions and feels them the most when she’s hurt. Her reactions, which range from weeping to violence to clinging to Shaun’s favorite sweater, magnify the other characters’ actions, making it all the more powerful when she can finally come to peace with their violence and begin again.
Stories about rock music try to feature protagonists with an everyman appeal, but often cast them outside the scope of the actual music. From Tom Perotta’s suburban cover guitarist Doug in The Wishbones, who reluctantly bows out of the amateur music scene for matrimony, to the sellout photographer narrating Brenden Mathews’s short story “This is Not a Love Song,” heroes often observe the magic of rock music from afar. Not so here. Destroy All Monsters seeks universality even here by taking the action inside the minds of the characters – the teenagers who only know emotional fulfillment from performing onstage. The steadily growing rock fiction genre usually takes place in some less stable version of our world, but Xenie lives far away from anywhere glamorous. By grounding itself in a Midwestern landscape and simple, vibrant images, the music becomes dirty and grungy like its characters and the audiences with whom they commune.
Jackson explores the universal enjoyment of music, but also exposes us to the rage and pain that humans all share. His quiet, spare writing adds to bare landscape of hurt for which this novel has empathy. As his country reels from the pain caused by shootings, Jackson finds solace in empathy, which destroys far more of this novel’s monsters than all of its characters’ violence and aggression. However, his climax isn’t fluffy and it does not offer a surefire cure. These characters purge their pain in a raw, dramatic fashion, met with the applause of a sold-out house, but they make a choice not to be violent. Simultaneously gritty and compassionate, Destroy All Monsters calls for a release of tension in an era of fear by appealing to the pain, love, and music that connect us all as humans.